Anibal Sanchez might not have the fastball zip or name recognition of fellow Tigers starters Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, but he has arguably been manager Jim Leyland's best option in 2013. The 29-year-old Venezuelan has a better park-and-league adjusted ERA (163 ERA+) than 2011 Cy Young Award winner Verlander (121 ERA+) or the possibly soon-to-be Cy Scherzer (145 ERA+).
Sanchez has emerged as an ace due in large part to the quality of his "soft" stuff -- his slider, changeup and curveball. He throws breaking and off-speed pitches nearly as often (48.4%) as his fastball, and he has enticed hitters into chasing his soft stuff off the plate at one of the highest clips among starting pitchers in the Junior Circuit. With a 36.1 percent chase rate on breaking and off-speed pitches, Sanchez trails just Mark Buehrle, Ryan Dempster and Ervin Santana in 2013.
Highest chase rate on soft pitches, 2013
By inducing so many hacks on soft pitches thrown out of the zone, Sanchez has limited hard contact. His .298 opponent slugging percentage on sliders, curves and changeups is sixth-lowest in the AL, behind Chris Sale (.294), Scherzer (.286), C.J. Wilson (.284), Yu Darvish (.243) and Justin Masterson (.181).
Sanchez's winning strategy -- expand the zone with breaking and off-speed stuff -- might not play as well against the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 the ALCS. Collectively, Boston hitters have chased the fourth-lowest percentage of breaking and off-speed pitches in the majors.
Lowest team chase rate on soft pitches
David Ortiz has shown an especially sharp eye against soft pitches, chasing out of the zone only 19 percent of the time this season. Mike Napoli (23.1 percent), Stephen Drew (26 percent), Jonny Gomes (27.8 percent) and Dustin Pedroia (28.4 percent) also resist the urge to go fishing and sliders, curves and changeups.
The Sox do a good deal of damage against soft pitches -- they're slugging .386, fourth-highest in the bigs -- but the real value in their patient approach may be how it puts them in favorable counts and allows them to sit on fastballs. Boston is slugging an MLB-best .484 versus fastballs this season, with Ortiz (.633) and Napoli (.569) leading the way. If Sox hitters lay off Sanchez's soft stuff, he may be forced to challenge Boston with more fastballs. That could lead to some shiny new dents on the Green Monster.